Wednesday, June 4, 2014

Changes to HECS debt: a users' guide

There is one glaring exception to the rule that Tony Abbott’s budget cuts are designed to protect higher income-earners at the expense of lower income-earners: the changes to university fees.

Although uni students like to see themselves as part of the deserving poor, it’s overwhelmingly the sons and daughters of people in the upper part of the distribution of income who go to university, and do so with the goal of acquiring the qualifications that will allow them to take their own place in the upper reaches of the distribution.

So the irony of the government’s efforts is that it’s predominantly the children of the better-off who’ll be hit by the expected significant increases in the cost of a uni education. And those increases raise the hurdle faced by those wishing to join the echelon intended to benefit most from the government’s budget reordering.

Only about 17 per cent of uni entrants come from a lower socio-economic background – a proportion that has changed little over the decades. The Whitlam government’s abolition of fees was intended to increase the proportion of poor kids getting to uni, but didn’t.

The Hawke government’s reintroduction of fees was predicted by some to reduce the proportion of poor kids, but didn’t – mainly because of the success of an invention by Professor Bruce Chapman, of the Australian National University, specifically designed to ensure it didn’t: the "income-contingent loan", known to us as HECS.

Much the same was predicted when the Howard government greatly increased uni fees, but HECS ensured it didn’t happen. That was chicken feed compared with this decision to allow unis to set their own fees. If this one doesn’t reduce the proportion of poor kids at uni, it will be because of the continuing magic of HECS.

That, plus the new requirement that 20 per cent of the unis’ additional revenue be used to set up "Commonwealth scholarships" to assist students from disadvantaged backgrounds. (Where have I heard that name before? Maybe because I had one in my uni days, before Whitlam. This government is nothing if not retro.)

These days, going to uni means not so much paying fees as taking on a debt. Loans have three key variables: the size of the principal borrowed, the rate of interest charged, and the term of the loan.

Abbott’s changes will affect the first two, with major implications for the third. Once the unis are let off the leash, there’s no telling how high they’ll lift their fees. Between them, they have a monopoly over the provision of a high-status, high-value product in high demand.

And it’s not just the changes planned to take effect in 2016. The further the government cuts its funding to unis, the more the unis will up their fees. And they may not stop at covering the cost of teaching, but also require students to subsidise their lecturers’ research. So suggestions that fees could double or treble aren’t far-fetched.

That covers the principal. At present under HECS there’s no formal interest rate, but outstanding debt is indexed to the consumer price index. To economists, this says the debt is subject to a "real" interest rate of zero.

Now there’s to be a formal interest rate set at the long-term Commonwealth bond rate, 4 per cent at present, but capped at 6 per cent. This implies a real interest rate of between 1.5 per cent and 3.5 per cent.

So whereas at present outstanding debt merely keeps pace with inflation, now it will grow in real terms – will compound, particularly while no repayments are being made. (This change will apply to everyone still with a HECS debt, not just present and future students.)

Commercial loans have a fixed repayment period, with a fixed rate of repayment calculated to ensure all interest and principal is paid by the end of the period. HECS debt has no fixed repayment period.

Rather, debtors pay nothing until their annual income exceeds about $50,000. Initially their repayments are set at 4 per cent of their income, but this increases as their income rises, to a maximum of 8 per cent. (Hence the term income-contingent loan.)

So the time it takes people to repay their HECS debt varies mainly with the level of income they attain after leaving uni. The lower your income, the longer it takes to repay. This means the imposition of a real interest rate is "regressive", hitting lower-income debtors harder than those on higher incomes.

It also means that, leaving aside differences in the size of the initial principal, the people who’ll end up with the biggest debts under the new rules will tend to be students who stay at uni for a year or two before realising tertiary education isn’t for them, graduates who take time out of the workforce to raise children and then work part-time for a bit, and graduates who go overseas. These last will face an ever-growing disincentive to come back.

But none of this contradicts Abbott’s claim that a HECS debt will still be "the most advantageous loan they ever receive". That’s why it never made financial (as opposed to filial) sense to repay HECS early under the present rules, and only rarely will it make financial sense under the new rules.

People’s debt will be much bigger and they’ll stay owing it for many years longer, but their repayments will never be onerous, thanks to the loan being income-contingent.